NOT everyone would regard a 400-kilometres bike ride across India on appalling roads in cold and rainy weather, with over-nights under canvas, as an inspirational experience. But then the Rugby Football Union’s Injured Players Foundation (IPF) members are a remarkable breed.
John Mackness, a 65-year-old tetraplegic from Carnforth in Lancashire, is just such a person. He is still drying out from an adventure that should have been enjoyed in warm sunshine, but was instead condemned to torrents of rain, shivering cold on his bike and in his tent, dreadful conditions on the tracks that were used and face to face meetings with the impoverished locals which usually did not add much glee to the experience.
But as with so many members of the IPF and the REGAIN Charity that John was raising funds for, adversity is a familiar companion. In his case, March 6th 1966 was the day his life changed dramatically during an inter-college rugby game at Nottingham University.
“Without any recovery for eight weeks after a neck injury, the outlook was grim,” says John: “But eventually I managed to get movement and some sensation in most parts of my body. After eight months I could stagger along with the aid of sticks and I was able to finish my degree at Nottingham, live independently and get a job.”
He has worked full-time since then in various jobs – computer programmer, operations research analyst, financial analyst and for the past 25 years as a university teaching fellow, retiring in 2010.
At that point he wanted to do something ‘a little bit crazy’ to mark the occasion and thanks to the Injured Players Foundation, who have helped him a great deal with his interest in handcycling, a door opened via another charity which helps to give tetraplegics greater freedom.
That charity – REGAIN – was organising a charity bike ride in Rajasthan, India – the perfect challenge to mark the beginning of retirement. REGAIN is the only UK charitable organisation dedicated solely to improving the independence of British men and women who have become tetraplegic as a result of a sports injury, so their project dovetailed perfectly with John’s retirement plan.
The event itself proved more challenging than was originally thought because the weather was especially unkind during the five-day ride from near the Taj Mahal to Jaipur at an average of 50 miles a day. The party was 27 able bodied riders and five tetras.
“It was impossible to get warm, which was tough for everyone, but for tetraplegics, it was especially difficult.” he recalls with a lasting shiver: “Everything was damp. We rode on tracks and B-roads, which were often full of potholes, ridges, streams and of course mud.
“However, everyone finished and in doing so will raise over £50,000 for REGAIN, with £5000 of that total coming from work colleagues, family and other donations. It was a great experience in many ways, but above all to share the feeling of a worthwhile endeavour and raise money for a good cause was the most rewarding aspect.
“That said, I think the important story is not really about the trip or the money raised, although they are very important and I’m very grateful to the friends, colleagues and companies who were so generous with their donations. The real story is about the fact that people with disabilities can achieve so much more these days than they ever could in the past.
“When I was injured 44 years ago, there were very few of the support organisations that there are today and the opportunities they offer. I seem to have let a few years slip by without realising what’s out there if you look and this trip has certainly been an inspiration for me.
“I’ve had my appetite whetted in a big way. All the tetraplegics completed the ride and showed such guts. It was an amazing feeling to share in the spirit of the group. Now I want to expand that experience and maybe even help inspire other people from the IPF and beyond to have a go.
“The important thing is for people not to think that their accident is the end of the road. There are things you can do. There are organisations, equipment, events, opportunities – all there to make use of. It’s only recently that I recognised that this network was in place to help. The key is to have the mental resolve to see what’s available and then get on with it.”
The RFU’s IPF supports people who sustain a catastrophic injury while playing rugby. The charity provides help and support for both players and their families in the early months after sustaining an injury and during the long-term recovery process.